The appeal to fear
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, will begin holding hearings Thursday on "the extent of the radicalization of American Muslims." Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has characterized the hearings as "a witch hunt." Are they?
King also has said he believes the "self-radicalization" of American Muslims represents "a very small minority" of the overall community. What are the potential consequences of singling out one religious group?
Depending on who you ask, there are 1.5 million to seven million Muslims in the United States. When you consider that our country has about 307 million people, you can start to grasp what a small community of believers this truly is. Nor are these believers monolithic. They encompass a wide range of theological and political stances. Yet we are to believe that this population as a whole holds a special danger to our safety and security. Politicians and pundits alike weave conspiracy theories, enact puzzling nonsensical laws against the enactment of "sharia", and stoke the fears and anger of ordinary citizens to a point where children are exposed to verbal abuse simply for being born in a Muslim family. Anyone who speaks out against this trend, including such respected civil rights institutions as the Southern Poverty Law Center, are labeled "far left" or "politically correct." These planned political show hearings, which will no doubt be replete with grandstanding by various politicians, are almost guaranteed to ratchet up the fear while doing little to constructively address actual problems among American Muslim communities.
This isn't to say that violent radicalization should not be investigated, according to the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security "eleven Muslim Americans have successfully executed terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11, killing 33 people," and there were more than 161 cases of recorded plots initiated by Muslim Americans. However, any look into the problem of radicalization should also acknowledge that the majority of those plots were stopped thanks to to tip-offs from Muslim-American community members. As Shahed Amanullah of altmuslim.com points out: "Muslim parents have on several occasions turned in their own children." These are not the actions of a community unconcerned or unresponsive to the threat of radicalization. Yet Rep. King has publicly denied this reality, saying law enforcement officials "are constantly telling me how little cooperation they get from Muslim leaders." Media Matters has accused King of planning to conduct the hearings by anecdote, failing to call any witnesses with a background in terrorism, law enforcement or homeland security. So it's little wonder that a coalition of 50 faith, civil rights and human rights organizations, including the Interfaith Alliance and the Japanese American Citizens League, have formally objected to these hearings.
As a member of a religious minority, I understand the peril in being labeled as the dangerous "other". Too far outside the accepted mainstream to fully enjoy the rights and protections of "normal" citizens. At this moment there are Pagans in the "broom" closet because they know their children will be taken away should they speak publicly about their beliefs. There are Pagans in American prisons being denied basic access to religious counsel or materials. For too long even Pagan soldiers were denied the dignity of an emblem on their gravestones. Things are far better now for my family of faiths than 10, 20, or 30 years ago, but I'm old enough to remember the moral "satanic" panics of the 1980s, and how easy it would be for things to slip down that road again should some instigating incident turn public opinion against us. When I see hearings so transparently showy, so obviously about garnering political favor and throwing red meat to their voting base, my first thought is always: who's next.
What happens if we empower our government to crack down on Muslim communities and pass laws against "creeping Islamisation," and things don't get better? What happens if the economy still sucks, and people still can't find jobs, and the wars in the Middle East continue to drag on? What if unstable people continue to do bad things? What then? Make Muslims wear funny hats? Or will the fearful and angry crowds look for a new, better, target. Mormons? Quakers? Unitarian-Universalists? Us? None of us are linked to a "religion of terror" at the moment, but societies in upheaval have a tendency to start killing its "witches". That's where the term "witch hunt" originated after all (George Orwell was an early adopter). So I know better than to trust that King, and those like him, won't continue to look for new targets once anti-Muslim sentiment has finally outlived its current usefulness.
There's a proper way to tackle the issue of self-radicalization, and that is to work with American Muslims at the grassroots, to build bridges and trust, not hold hearings where Glenn Beck's favorite Muslim gets to extend his 15 minutes of fame. The glaring spotlight of political populism is on American Muslims right now, but I think all religious minorities in this country will be just slightly more alert in the days ahead, wondering if these hearings auger something far more dangerous than rhetoric.
Posted by: bloggersvilleusa | March 7, 2011 9:36 PM
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